Luis Ortiz, a 40-year old Cuban in the twilight of his career, wants to be heavyweight champion for all the reasons you expect. The money. The power. The fame that comes with the coolest title in sports. The alphabet bodies have watered down the word champion, but a legit heavyweight title still carries plenty of cache.
Ortiz wants all that. Just not as much as the platform that comes with it.
The beginning of Ortiz’s story is familiar: Talented Cuban athlete who wants to parlay his skills into more than just medals for his country. They defect, sometimes to the United States, sometimes to other countries with a plan to get to the United States. Baseball players are the most common, with elite talents like Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Céspedes among a long list of Cuban defectors. In 2014, Rusney Castillo signed a seven-year, $72.5 million deal with Boston—without ever playing a major league game.
In recent years, boxers have joined the mix. Pro boxing has been banned in communist party controlled Cuba since 1962. Cuban boxers have been limited to amateur competitions, which yield none of the riches of the professional ranks. Fighters won medals, and were known to sell the medals for food. For many, millions have been left on the table. In the 1970’s, Teofilo Stevenson, a decorated Cuban heavyweight, rejected multi-million dollar offers to fight Muhammad Ali, famously telling reporters, “What is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?" Sports Illustrated ran a story under the headline HE'D RATHER BE RED THAN RICH.
In 2009, Ortiz defected. He crammed his 6’3”, 240-plus pound frame on a small speedboat, overcoming an overwhelming fear of the water, and made the 12-hour journey to Mexico. A couple of days later, he walked to the U.S. border, shoeless.
Ortiz wanted the money a career spent fighting in the U.S. offered. He wanted the medical care more. Ortiz’s daughter, Lismercedes, was born with epidermolysis bullosa, an incurable skin condition. At birth, Lismercedes thumb was discolored. Doctors first thought was to amputate it. Ortiz told them they would have to amputate his thumb, too. Her condition was diagnosed a few months later. Lismercedes skin was hyper sensitive. It could tear at the smallest scratch and be accompanied by searing pain. Blisters, says Ortiz, are like third-degree burns.
“They said it was something she would just have to live with,” Ortiz said in a telephone interview. “They said she would have to tough it out.”
Ortiz wanted more. Friends advised him to look to the U.S., which had superior medical care. Ortiz agreed. He left his family, unsure when—or if—he would see them again. He moved to south Florida, turning pro in 2010. His family, his daughter, provided him his focus.
“Not seeing them, it killed me, daily,” says Ortiz. “But it was my motivation.”
More than two years after Ortiz defected, his family followed him. His wife, Lisdey, was first, flying to Mexico. Eight months pregnant and with just a broken suitcase, Lisdey made a similar walk to the U.S. border. Ortiz was waiting for her, a pot of stew in his oversized hands.
U.S. medicine didn’t provide any immediate miracles. There were small improvements. Better medication. Better bandages. But nothing substantive. Until last year, when Ortiz contacted Stanford University is among the leading researchers of epidermolysis bullosa. Doctors there developed a cream that Ortiz says has helped Lismercedes “tremendously.” The cream, says Ortiz, effectively provides an extra layer of skin. Ortiz says doctors have told him there is a “strong possibility” they will find a cure.
On Saturday, Ortiz (31-1) will face Deontay Wilder, an alphabet titleholder. The two met in 2018, with Ortiz throwing a scare into Wilder in the seventh round, rocking Wilder with a right hook and nearly stopping him with a flurry of punches. In the tenth, Wilder (41-0-1) stopped Ortiz with a brutal uppercut.
Wilder says Ortiz deserves a rematch. But there could more to it. The two share a common bond. Wilder’s daughter, Naieya, was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spinal cord and can cause lifelong disability. His daughter is the reason Wilder got in boxing, setting him on a path that would lead to an Olympic bronze medal and his status as world champion and the most fearsome puncher in boxing today.
In interviews, Wilder has admitted that Ortiz’s daughter is one of the reasons he gave Ortiz a rematch.
“His daughter suffers from something like mine did,” Wilder said. “That takes money to be treated properly and to support the family. I looked at him as a father and from one father to another father that loves their family, and loves their children, I said, ‘I’ve got to give him an opportunity to support his family.’”
There’s plenty on the line for both fighters. A Wilder win sets up an anticipated rematch with Tyson Fury in 2020. A win by Ortiz guarantees a third fight with Wilder, while positioning him to face the winner of next month’s rematch between Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua.
But for Ortiz, there is more. The heavyweight champion draws attention, attention Ortiz can redirect to epidermolysis bullosa. Money will help treat his daughter—Ortiz will make in excess of $5 million against Wilder—but raising awareness will do more to help find a cure. In recent weeks, Ortiz has grown tired of talking about Wilder. About nearly stopping him. About getting stopped. About how, at 40, he can overcome an opponent that seems to get better with every fight.
Interviews about his daughter, about epidermolysis bullosa? Ortiz will speak on them for hours. Lismercedes will be ringside in Las Vegas on Saturday. She is happy and healthier than ever before. Lismercedes was Ortiz’s reason to make the hard journey to the U.S. She continues to fuel him today.
“The heavyweight championship is a great, but the platform that provides, being a champion, what that can do to help my daughter, is paramount,” Ortiz said. “It’s priceless. It’s the reason I fight. Even if I were to win the title, if I were to become the first Cuban heavyweight champion, if tomorrow or the next day, they tell me there is a cure but you have to give up your title, I would give it up on a silver platter.”